Lunar: The Silver Star – Sega CD

Lunar the Silver Star-170613-223953

Quark gets the same look in his eyes when his grandkids remember to visit.

Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete is an awesome game. The first time I finished it, I asked myself what game I’d most like to play next and decided, “I want to play this one again! Because 50-plus hours alone in a basement doing repetitive tasks isn’t the least bit indicative of Asperger’s!” I didn’t know much about the game at the time other than it was a remake of a Sega CD game, which didn’t interest me much. After all, the Sega CD add-on was about as common in the early 90s as blacksmith shops, and game remakes, even to this day, tend to undergo a process akin to dying your average Easter eggs. However, since the developer Working Designs chose a name for themselves that literally means, “Meh. We’re not quite there yet,” it probably shouldn’t have shocked me to realize that Lunar: Complete underwent a massive remodel for its transition to the Playstation. Yet this always raised the question, how good was Lunar: The Silver Star to begin with? As it turns out…it’s a game that feels rather incomplete. That’s two points to Working Designs for apropos naming.

Lunar the Silver Star-170621-012601

Copyright DC Comics 1958

The story begins with Alex, your average teenager living in a sleepy, boring, podunk, inbred mountain town, who dreams of packing his things and setting out in the world to make it big as the Dragonmaster (although through fierce competition for the job, most teens get a few auditions for commercials before going broke and falling back on porn before moving home to live with their parents). Lucky for Alex, though, his friend drags him along on an adventure to plunder some shit (literally) from a nearby dragon’s cave, and the dragon thinks he might have potential. So the bright-eyed boy sets off on an adventure full of people who lost their stuff and need him to get it for them, because what better item could a potential master of dragons and protector of the goddess have on his resume than “helper monkey”? I guess, though, even fantasy worlds need unpaid interns. So the fetch quests commence until a villain finally surfaces and Alex decides to finally get serious and track down the three remaining dragons.

Lunar the Silver Star-170613-231121

I’m, laike, totally a traveler! Totally!

Although I enjoyed the game, the hardest part about playing it is the realization that I write prolifically, publish a free, weekly blog read by about ten people, all while Working Designs made millions by pawning their rough drafts off on Sega owners. The game is so threadbare that I’m surprised they edited out the popsicle sticks and sock puppets used for character sprites. While I can make allowances for 16-bit graphic design, Jessica, the feisty beast-girl priestess, looks like someone draped a Statue of Liberty robe over her shoulders and topped it off with a molding George Washington wig. They try to build up Alex as a silent protagonist, but his taciturn disregard for anything happening in his immediate vicinity just rubs off on the other characters. Their complete and utter lack of passion left me with less emotional investment in the story than I have digging a spoon into a bowl of Fiber One. And yet, if one feature of the game let me understand what the quest to become Dragonmaster feels like, it’s the realization that slaying monster after monster for hours on end isn’t exactly a lucrative practice, be you fantasy hero or Sega owner, and I only had slightly more money in the game than I do in real life. Generally the point of “fantasy” is for real people to vicariously experience impossible scenarios. Sorry, but I spend enough time window shopping at Savers to want to do it in a digital reality, too.

Lunar the Silver Star-170615-223044

Yeah, this is something a hero would say that no one should be suspicious of in the least.

Lunar the Silver Star-170614-041504

Too bad the only practical use for this spell is pissing off rednecks in diners and republican politicians.

The game comes with its own cloud of early-RPG locusts. Using magic from the menu dishes out one healing spell at a time before telling you to get to the back of the line for seconds. Diverse items and spells pile up like mismatched tupperware, but have no in-game descriptions. My first inclination is to compare that to soup cans without labels, but since the only way to find out what an item or spell does is to use it and hope you notice some difference, the soup analogy only works if you shove entire cans into your mouth, chew, and swallow all at once. Spell menus reorganize themselves based on the most recent spell you cast and don’t even list MP costs, giving you literally no way to gauge how powerful any attack might be or what effect a spell might have. All in all, I can’t recommend this game for anyone with OCD.

Lunar the Silver Star-170615-221129

There are like six different kinds of nightmares happening right now.

About halfway through the game, fetch quests give way to another pleasure: spending more time wandering around the same areas than the cast of Gilligan’s Island. Rather than make enticing, explorable maps filled with hidden treasures more valuable than your average rutabaga, Lunar: the Silver Star provides you with maze after maze of identical corridors with no discernible landmarks to guide your way. Add to to that an enemy encounter rate high enough that Alex should have concerns about his buoyancy in Lunar predators, and the game begins to work against itself, naturally leveling your characters to the point that they play keep-away with the final boss’s helmet.

Lunar the Silver Star-170620-202958

These are the stories creationists tell around a campfire to scare their children.

Lunar the Silver Star-170625-033252

Alex saves the world, rescues the girl, and cures his erectile dysfunction all in the same day.

My suggestion: play the complete version. The Sega CD edition is like the raw food diet—yeah, there are some interesting ideas behind (such as Laike squaring off against Xenobia or the back story about Dyne and Ghaleon fighting for who gets to be dragonmaster0, but in the end they’re not good enough to justify the fact that you’re dining on something that isn’t done yet. But if you’re curious like me, go ahead and play the Sega version. I can say at least with near certainty that it probably did not give me salmonella.

Lunar the Silver Star-170622-020938

Okay, so the insane dragon skeleton is actually a pretty cool element that didn’t make it into the remake.

Lunar the Silver Star-170616-022939

That’s funny, I have the same policy for traveler’s insurance, roadkill and Microsoft products.

Lunar the Silver Star-170620-015025

I want to say something I’m sure is inappropriate, but I’m not sure if it’s because they’re underage or because they’re cartoons.

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings – NDS

ff12-revenant-wings-wallpaper-4

Penelo seems to have gained some fashion sense in discarding her rubber onesie.

I’ve spoken before on how video game sequencing looks less like a chronological order and more like a dyslexic sudoku written over a calculus textbook at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Final Fantasy certainly commits more numbering atrocities than any other series I can name. With at least 100 games among its main series, sequels both direct and indirect, ports, remakes, revamps, spoofs, spin-offs, spunk, special editions, not to mention animated features, Advent Children, that one with Alec Baldwin and Donald Southerland, and possibly the entire Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) series (if you count that in the way that bonobos count as spin-offs of the human species), then…wait, where was I going with this sentence? Eh. Who cares? As long as a big, long, rambling list keeps me from getting to Final Fantasy XIII, a game which could have only been the result of a seizure in the middle of a hand job, all the better for it! If we can call games like FFVI, VII or X “strokes of genius,” then XIII shows us what a regular stroke looks like. Sadly, if Square had gotten to the hospital in time, they may not have gotten stuck in the brain-loop that made them produce two sequels. But today we’re talking about Square-Enix’s last-ditch attempt at dieting and exercise before they sank back into their couch, downed a gallon of whiskey, and puffed up a big fat cigar.

final-fantasy-xii-revenant-wings-20070716012108652-000

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings serves as a direct sequel to Barney and Friends. Seriously, what do you think it serves as the direct sequel to? For once, Square did a remarkably good job (re: coincidence) of taking all the criticisms from the original (er…XII, rather) and building a game that addressed them all. The result just happened to be a game that resembled its predecessor as much as Gene Simmons resembles Richard Simmons, but unlike either Gene or Richard, it ended up being entertaining and well worth the time.

The game centers, more or less, around Vaan, who’s been given a total character overhaul as people tend not to enjoy protagonists with the personality of a teenage barnacle. Once again teamed up with Penelo—who’s been given a costume overhaul so as not to spend another game dressed in a rubber onesie—the pair go gallivanting around Ivalice, leading their younger friends Filo and Kytes into a life of plunder and piracy, a life which tends to lose its luster when one ends up murdered by colleagues. To be fair, Vaan spends the entire game insisting that he’s’ one of the good and moral pirates, and that all those other pirates who are in it for the looting, plundering, pillaging and—we can only assume—raping and whoring—have it all wrong and probably just need to watch an after school special or two on the true meaning of sky pirating. Generally, this attitude is a moral luxury one can afford only if they happen to be close friends with the reigning monarchs of two world superpowers (and at least acquainted with a third). Since Ashe clearly has no intention of executing the people who personally handed her throne to her, this sets up Vaan as sort of an entitled 1-percenter among criminals, making him more of a stock broker with a heart of gold.

final-fantasy-12-revenant-wings-vaan-penelo

But to be fair, he does spend the game doing the right thing. After stealing a self-driving airship that takes them to a previously undiscovered sky continent—which is now full of pirates who are discovering the living daylights out of it—Vaan befriends one of the locals and spends a good chunk of the game trying to kick out the occupying forces. So he’s kind of like the Gandhi of medieval fantasy combat. (I think Gandhi always played as a barbarian, if I’m correct.) But what kind of epic would this be if none of the villains were supernatural? So Vaan and Company eventually stumbles across a god doing some douchebag thing or another, and pull a Taken-style vendetta against him to steal back the emotions of people on the sky continent.

About a year and a half ago, I played Heroes of Mana, which I noted played like Revenant Wings with only mild brain damage. Well guess what? If you guessed that political tensions between North and South Korea will likely come to a head within the next decade, you’re probably right! But if you guessed that Revenant Wings plays like a more developed Heroes of Mana, you’re both right AND relevant to the conversation. The game is a fairly simple and straightforward RTS. The rock-paper-scissors relationship from Heroes of Mana has been stripped down so as not to throw in a lizard or a Spock to muck up the works. Units are grouped into melee, ranged and flying, where melee is weak to flying, ranged is weak to melee, and flying is weak to ranged. Most battles require you to use all three. In addition, you can assign monsters to fight alongside you, turning the game into a battle royale in Michael Vick’s back yard.

Monsters come in three tiers, and you can take five monsters into battle with you: one at tier three or less, two at tier two or less, and two at tier one. Tier three tend to be the espers from FFXII or the mainstay Final Fantasy summons who have seniority or tenure or something and therefore have to be part of every game. Fortunately, these tier three monsters no longer come into the world like a mad scientist’s first attempt at creating life from the emaciated corpse of a heroine addict with a heart condition. The bad news is that using one takes up the tier three slot, meaning either your melee, ranged, or flying units will have to rely mostly on a tier one monster. But honestly, you could still intimidate foes if you charge into battle with an army of mages, a seasoned cavalry, Godzilla, and a troop of boy scouts on unicycles, right?

final-fantasy-xii-revenant-wings-20071015095340660-2161759_320w

The game balances out quite well, actually, even if the good monsters get put away in the cabinet with your mom’s china. Battles play out nicely, yet provide realistic challenge that takes thought to overcome, and they have a number of win conditions from your standard “kill the leader” and “complete monster genocide” to more unique ones like “steal all the treasure before the enemies squash the bangaa out of you” and even a capture-the-flag type scenario. The one thing, if any, that I don’t like about the game is the characters. Although given ten playable characters, one ditches your party permanently the first chance he gets, which leaves you with one healing unit, two melee units, two flying units and four ranged units. Since flying enemies are neither more powerful nor more abundant than anything else, I can only feel there’s some racial discrimination going on, and in FFXII-3 we’re going to be dealing with “winged lives matter” movements to protest the excessive force used against anything with two feet off the ground. Really, though, while Fran, Balthier, and Ashe are interesting characters, there’s rarely any reason to use them, as Kytes is the only ranged unit that can use black magic attacks.

Revenant Wings is well worth the play through, especially if you enjoyed tactics games. I really appreciated such novel concepts as “using a plot that isn’t as confused over its identity as a gay transgender child of a Southern Baptist preacher.” Plus, clocking in at under 30 hours—if you play all of the side quests—it almost feels like it’s apologizing for FFXII devouring months of your life.

Illusion of Gaia – SNES

RetroArch-0801-173125

Much like many in the animal kingdom, the ancient warrior of light, when threatened, will wet himself as a defense mechanism.

And now a game that needs no introduction…but since I have to write one anyway, I had never heard of Illusion of Gaia when I pulled it out of the $10 clearance bin at Walmart. Yes, it could have been a broken, miserable, unplayable experience that left me empty and soulless, my lack of satisfaction made exponentially more crushing with every dollar I spent on it, but I had to face the facts, I would never get back the $2.50 I had spent renting Mario is Missing, nor would I get back the hour and a half of my life I sacrificed for a trivia game designed for people working their way up to the challenge of Dora the Explorer. And hey, it didn’t look half bad. The reason I had never heard of it probably came from the measly 650,000 copies it sold worldwide, less than half of which sold in the U.S.A. While that’s a big number and I wouldn’t mind selling 650,000 of anything (provided it’s not something bad like indentured servants or square cm of advertising space via tattoo), other games such as Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VI sold several million copies worldwide. And since Illusion of Gaia is in the same class of game as those two, get out your dark hoods, sacrificial knives and grab a spare chicken, because we’re going to celebrate Illusion of Gaia as a bona fide cult classic!

RetroArch-0801-134035

This is the most fun I had since playing the merchant in Dragon Quest IV.

Illusion of Gaia follows young Will, a boy who faces down swarms of demons armed with nothing more than a flute. And while that could set up an interesting Zelda-style mechanic where you use music to lull your opponents to sleep or pacify their hateful heart, Will doesn’t follow the path of the spooney bard so much as the style of Bam-bam Rubble. Gaia, the spirit of the earth, tasks will will traveling through the world’s ancient ruins to collect mystic statues that will enable him to destroy a comet careening toward their certain destruction. And the stingy broad doesn’t even offer so much as a “Heart” power ring. So Will travels the world with his friends, and we get to witness all his adventures, mishaps, the zany relationships between characters, the wonderful oddities along the way, and also the sheer devastation caused by the mystical comet in the past coupled with a dark subplot about a slave trade. You know. Good fun for a 15-year-old boy. The story is actually very good, a downright miracle when you realize it’s so poorly-written. Dialogue, especially near the beginning, reads like expository writing at a tourette’s convention, a collecting of disparate, unsolicited facts prematurely ejaculating themselves into the conversation. In one extended cut scene, Will announced that he’s starting to develop feelings for the princess. And then he drops unconscious with a case of scurvy. So the player has to let a lot of stuff slide, but the story moves along in a sensible manner like it should.

RetroArch-0801-125220

Will defaces a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Chinese Terra Cotta Soldiers.

The game technically plays out in our world, presumably in the far future after the comet has pulled its Chernoble impression six or seven times, halting world progress and handing evolution over to the whims of Salvador Dali. Will visits several real-world locations, such as the Nazca lines, the Incan ruins, Ankor Wat, the Great Wall of China. Still, the game plays fast and loose with geography, as though the developers failed their world map quiz in high school and decided to re-write the map so their answers would be correct. The Nazca lines are no longer on the same continent as the Incan ruins, Europe is now a single city somehow located west of China, but east of Cambodia, and Egypt is way off in the Northwest.

RetroArch-0801-122901

…good luck with that.

The combat system, aside from exhibiting a brutal violence toward band instruments, steals from action RPGs like Secret of Mana, while employing a unique system of leveling up. Rather than earning experience or equipping items, Will gets a stat bonus by clearing all the monsters in any given area (which he can only do once per area). With a limited number of stat increases, the difficulty in later stages depends on how thoroughly you can ethnically cleanse the earlier stages—which isn’t all that difficult, considering the generous head start that 16th century Spanish explorers gave you. Later on, the game ramps up the difficulty not only by making enemies harder, but by hiding one or two in each area. Not a bad idea, really, although it was a little frustrating running through the Ankor Wat hedge maze like Jack Torrence, playing a murderous game of Where’s Waldo as I hunted down the lone hedge monster I needed for my upgrade.

RetroArch-0801-100509

Freedan fights ancient Nazca robot while a string of anal beads looks on.

Will doesn’t have to run around jabbing his flute into things for the entire game. At various points he can transform into the Dark Knight Freedan, or Shadow, the bio-weapon made from the comet’s light, in what has to be the weirdest metaphor for puberty I’ve ever seen. Freedan and Shadow are both stronger than Will, but each character has a unique set of abilities that will be required to progress, so like any troubled teen, you’ll spend a lot of time altering your body in order to fight the evil establishment. While Will can perform special acrobatics, Freedan can reach across long distances, and Shadow can…make puddles on the floor like a dog that hasn’t been housebroken, all three characters have telekinetic powers. While mostly this is only good for a. collecting the mostly-useless items dropped by enemies and b. making the case that Will is “the chosen one,” it can also be used to block most projectile attacks. Because the best way to dodge a bullet is to stand right in front of it and pull it towards you with psychic force.

RetroArch-0801-115217

And I would walk 500 more…

I say the enemy drops are mostly useless as with very rare exception, they’re all gems that serve the basic purpose of Mario’s coins. That’s right. Illusion of Gaia has a life system. Instead of going back to the beginning of the stage when you die, if you’ve collected at least 100 gems, you’ll only go back to the beginning of the room you’re in. With severely diminished health. And any healing items you used before death are gone for good. And healing items are rare enough that they could be the subject of the next Indiana Jones movie. In most cases, it would be far easier to reset the game and start over from the last save point than to take the free life the game offers.

RetroArch-0801-074450

The George W. Bush homeland security policy. Gaia does a wicked harsh cavity search.

But really, these issues don’t amount to anything that might dissuade me from playing the game. Some of the more serious crimes involve key items being introduced with a text crawl so slow that it sets off a bomb on a bus somewhere and an end goal so confusing that even the main character questions why you’d want to replace the natural fantasy world with a modern urban sprawl. But if anyone told me these flaws actually amounted to something, I’d probably react the same was as if someone gave me a ticket for jaywalking.

South Park: The Stick of Truth – PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Kupa Keep
The world of RPGs is in dire peril. The once-noble Square-Enix has abandoned its loyal subjects and now appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing gameplay, story and style, they have heaped enough muscles onto their protagonists that each one qualifies as its own Olympic wrestling team and armed them with enough firepower to give the NRA spontaneous orgasms. Meanwhile, Nippon-Ichi floods the market with games written as though someone had copy-pasted a bunch of fan fiction pdf files and didn’t notice that the formatting fucked up. These games consist of one bombardment of verbal diarrhea after another that connect repetitive and clunky battle systems that work as well as an NES with broken connector pins…after someone threw it into the Grand Canyon. Bethesda offers us reprieves with an occasional Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but these come only slightly more frequently than a nun and have so many bugs that the games require heavy fumigation. But in our hour of need, two warriors emerge from the darkness, standing tall over everything we’ve lost. Armed with nothing but their wits, a love for RPGs, and a virtually unlimited amount of financial support based on the success of a major TV series running for nearly two decades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped forward to give us their role-playing masterpiece, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

Homeless

Beat up the homeless so they leave town. If South Park doesn’t have homeless people, they’ll look more compassionate.

The game gives you control of The New Kid, also known as Douchebag, who arrives in South Park just in time to be swept up in a long-term game between Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, that more resembles a minor gang war than a 4th grade playtime. Cartman leads the humans as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), who possess the Stick of Truth, the most macguffiny macguffin ever conceived for fiction. Whoever controls the Stick, they say, controls the universe. You’d think that control of the universe would include the power to keep the KKK’s rival faction, the Drow Elves, from stealing the Stick. But of course that’s the first thing that happens, giving Douchebag the impetus to begin his quest.

Cartman

The Grand Wizard of the KKK, using fire to smite his foes.

It’s sad for me to say this, but a game that lets you fart into your hand and throw it at enemies is better than anything that Square-Enix has put out in at least ten years. But it happens. Frequently, actually. Because parodies have to be so tuned into the tropes, characteristics, and weaknesses of their genre, they often become paragons of what they’re mocking. When I first saw the Venture Bros., I felt like re-watching Johnny Quest, only to find out the series developed plot less than an episode of Scooby Doo and oozed enough racial superiority to bleach the Klan’s linens. I’ve read that Parker and Stone are huge fans of classic RPGs, which goes a long way to explaining why so many elements that frustrate players don’t appear in Stick of Truth. Random battles happen only enough to stay interesting, and the type of enemies vary enough that you don’t get into the standard RPG pattern of taping down the X button and going outside to mow the lawn. Many games use backtracking like a bra—the padding makes it look bigger and better, but once you strip if off you’re left with a deep-seated disappointment. Stick of Truth, on the other hand, has a fast travel service, but I found myself opting to walk across the map because it had enough interesting things going on in the background. But this begs the question, if the South Park creators know what players want because they are fans of RPGs, what exactly do full-time game developers do for fun?

Class

The game focuses heavily on story and plays like an extended episode of South Park. Playing to their strengths as writers, Parker and Stone have found new and interesting ways to incorporate their brand of humor that should have gone stale in 1998. They do avoid their usual satirical style, most likely so that the game has a shelf life longer than grocery store sushi, but do rely heavily on social media trends like Facebook and Twitter. They also center a quest around Al Gore’s search for Manbearpig, their rather embarrassing comment on climate change denial, but I can forgive this. Like drunken antics at a college party, we can look back and admit something might not have been a good idea, but was still funny as hell.

Butters

If there’s one complaint I have about the game—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s the overly complicated fart mechanics. Trying to pass its gas off as a magic system, farting works more akin to Skyrim’s dragon shouts. Each of the four flatulent skills you learn requires a specific combination of inputs with the right and left control sticks. Holding the right stick in the down or up position allows you to change direction, tune a frequency, or steer with the left control stick, and you can let rip your attack, unleashing chemical warfare in the form of deadly gases, by changing direction with the right stick at the right moment. Farting in the Stick of Truth demands precision, the type you need to throw a hadouken fireball while tuning radio dials, adjusting rabbit ear antennas, and filing your taxes all at the same time. Fortunately, the game only requires you to fart in one or two battles, and it’s a lot easier to do it on the map, so I didn’t have to worry.

Fart

Yup. This is happening. And it’s a GOOD game, remember.

There are other problems, to be sure. The game feels too short, and a little sparse on available quests. You have companion characters to use in battle, the four main stars, Butters and Jimmy, but halfway through the game, they kind of peter out and don’t help much in battle other than to use items. But that problem corrects itself by making the game progressively easier as you learn how to use the battle system, eliminating most of the challenge even on the highest difficulty setting. But still, I can’t praise this game highly enough. It shows us what PS3 era RPGs could have been, if only game developers weren’t sitting around like corporate monkeys, throwing their feces at traditional players in hopes of selling something to any moron with an xBox and a copy of FIFA 2013. The industry’s behavior almost sounds like an episode of South Park…

Summons

Brandish – SNES

RetroArch-0730-053208

In the same way that getting shot develops an ability to withstand bullets.

I suppose I commonly stretch the definition of “retro” on this blog. A lot of what I review isn’t retro at all; Wii, PS3…books. Honestly, I’m starting to feel like a myopic hipster, clinging to the good old days of blackberries and flip phones and rejecting the ever-so-trendy man-bun-lumbersexual look in favor of coiffing my hair to resemble a freshly frosted cupcake / toothpaste advertisement / steaming dog shit resting atop my head. The point being, if I’m trying to reach into the past while only grabbing things I can reach from the couch, I’m doing it wrong. In my defense, it’s easier to go out and buy games for the Wii or the PS3—much in the same way it’s easier to buy an iPhone than a hand-cranked Victrola—but I have to remember my roots periodically so as not to get carried away. One root to remember involves an SNES game I rented one weekend in high school and completed 75% before I had to return it. Well, it may have taken me nearly two decades to get around to it, but I finally finished the SNES…uh, classic?…Brandish.

RetroArch-0729-130001

…I don’t know. It might be worth it to let her catch me.

An adventure RPG, Brandish opens with a story of a greedy king transformed into a monster before the powers that be decide to punish all the innocents in the kingdom (No, I’m not talking about a Trump presidency) by burying the entire land deep in the earth. And then everyone forgets about it, so really, have we lost anything? I mean, if New York were to vanish off the face of the planet, you can bet that even Texas would put that in their textbooks until doomsday. South Dakota, on the other hand, could be gone already and none of us would know about it for decades. Thousands of years in the future (in Brandish, not Dakota), the player-character, Varik, is being chased by Alexis, a blond sorceress wearing traditional high-level fantasy armor who wants to kill him for “destroying [her] teacher,” a plot point that ends up as thoroughly as the rationale behind making a Tetris movie. Their fight opens up a hole in the ground and the two fall to the deepest point of a 45-floor labyrinth, fortunately avoiding impaling themselves on all those high-level monsters and…you know…floors…closer to the surface. Because damn it, that’s how this works!

RetroArch-0730-011809

Fuckin’ sphinxes. They’re like rats, infesting the labyrinth and leaving their “riddles” all over the place for you to step in.

Varik then proceeds to explore his way to the surface through a top-down perspective, and before I go any further, I need to address something. You may notice upon taking your first steps, that you can only move forward and backward, and that any attempts to turn left or right induce a nauseating change of scenery. Well, apparently the developers couldn’t be bothered to animate sprites for moving side-to-side or toward the player. I guess rather than change direction, it was easier to make the entire map rotate 90 degrees to one side. Fortunately, when the mighty dragon sunk the kingdom, he installed a few ball-bearing casters so the residents wouldn’t have to worry about silly things like turning. There’s a reason no other game has controls that fucked up; it’s because people who think like that can’t make it to work because they get stuck at intersections waiting for the road to turn. Congratulations! You took tank controls, a design scheme that frustrates players by making them feel like they’re guiding a drunken sorority girl to the bathroom to puke, and simulated the puking experience for the player as well. It turns out that the game is a port of a computer game from 1991, so that may have had something to do with it, and I did figure out that you could strafe from side to side by holding L or R. Still, developers, can we just consider “character moves in direction pushed on D-pad” to be both public domain and a mechanic that doesn’t need improvement? Anything weirder than that, and players are going to accept it about as well as a Neo-Nazi at an NAACP convention.

RetroArch-0729-125835

What do you mean there’s no ethnic diversity in fantasy? That dragon clearly has a Cthulu somewhere in his family tree.

Beyond that—but don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty significant “that”–I’d say Brandish could be considered a hidden gem for the SNES. It does get a lot of things “right” for the genre; labyrinth full of monsters, useful items and magic, challenging yet logical puzzles, and a surprisingly healthy system of commerce for a lost civilization full of vicious bloodthirsty monsters and a handful of shop keepers. The gameplay centers around making your way through the labyrinth, but every floor manages to find some unique feature to introduce, so even though my eyes wound themselves together like a case of testicular torsion in my head, I never felt the game was slow-paced or repetitive. It was kind of like being in the movie Labyrinth. Except the labyrinth is underground. And there aren’t any muppets. And Sarah is replaced with a man in armor. And David Bowie is actually a Lovecraftian monster that shoots fire from his…let’s go with “appendages,” and Hoggle is a fiery, magic-wielding sex kitten…okay, so it’s nothing like Labyrinth. But it has a nice, adventurous feel to it nonetheless.

Some boss fights are hellishly difficult, a problem augmented by the fact that all the swords you find seem to be forged with the highest quality peanut brittle, and a lot of monsters are either resistant to magic, or it outright slides off of them like they’ve been heavily varnished. The game offsets this by allowing you to save whenever you like. I recommend you save often, but even with the best of precautions, be prepared to become as familiar with the logos and title sequence like a pole is with a stripper’s thighs.

RetroArch-0730-032724

“How is the game?” “Lobsterrific!”

The one other aspect of this game that irritates me like a pair of boxers made from the prickly side of Velcro strips is the menu interface. The select button opens the menu, which freezes certain functions like attacking or defending. The game keeps going to let you do things like cast magic or drink health potions without needing to equip the item, but at certain critical moments when your skin is bursting at the seams and you’re about to spill messy innards all over the floor, you may literally not be able to go on unless you drink that potion. I may be spoiled by all those other games where the monsters take their legally mandated 15-minute break whenever you call a time out to root through your sack of accumulated crap, but I find it just downright rude if an enemy doesn’t shut off the flame thrower long enough for me to rub on some burn ointment. Even more obnoxious are level-up text boxes. These things will pop up whenever you gain a level, increase your arm strength or your knowledge, or improve your magic endurance. And it also disables certain functions until it goes away. I really do believe it’s important to celebrate the small things in life, but honestly I’d rather wait until the giant lobster I’ve been hacking to pieces is wounded enough to lose consciousness (at the lest) before I raise a glass in a toast to my newfound ability to not feel quite as bad when giant lobsters remove my kidneys.

RetroArch-0729-130619

Uhh…do you really have to look at me that way when you say that?

Disgaea: Hour/Afternoon of Darkness – PS2, PSP, NDS

GH_PS2CoverSheet10_06Despite only two weeks passing since my last entry, I haven’t written anything for nearly two months. Instead of spending my time playing video games like a good, responsible 32-year-old, I’ve been working backstage at our local production of 42nd Street, a show so bad that it literally tries to justify its lack of plot by telling the audience ”At least the girls are hot!” And while yes, they were, I’m not yet sure it makes up for working a 20+ hour a week job for no pay, being forced to listen to the same misogynistic songs with no relevance to the story. Really. The only character with any internal conflict in the whole show is the antagonist, who eventually decides that having an accomplished career on Broadway was simply holding her back from what she really wanted in life: a husband. Still, there’s a sunny side to every situation, and sitting through hour after thrilling hour of watching people exercise with metal shoes provides an excellent counterpoint to make a horrible, tedious, level-grinding RPG not seem as bad.

In The Money

Okay…so maybe it was a *little* worth it for the backstage costume changes.

Thankfully, there’s a PSP port of Disgaea, Nippon Ichi Software’s magnum opus, their lightning bolt of inspiration, which after it struck, they sequestered themselves in a rubber-lined mine shaft hoping for that lightning to strike again. Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, prince of the Netherworld, who wakes up after a short two-year nap to find out that his father, the Demon Overlord, has died, and that all his vassals are as eager to swear fealty to Laharl as if the ring they had to kiss had a raging case of herpes. Together with Etna, the one vassal who remains faithful to him only because she can’t double-cross him if he’s her enemy, they set off on a quest to build power and overcome all the rivals for the throne. But when he foils an assassination attempt by angel trainee Flonne, a character straight out of a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life written by Seth MacFarlane, she introduces the concept of love into his black heart and textbook creative writing class scenarios ensue. The story is simple. Character goes on quest, learns something about himself. No twists or turns. But it’s well written, has a cartoonishly dark sense of humor done in an anime inspired episodic format, and next to the plot of 42nd Street, Disgaea is Citizen Fucking Kane.

Dis1

NIS is so good at cramming things into small spaces, they’re permanently banned from Old Country Buffet

However, NIS seems to have interpreted the “Less is More” philosophy as meaning “Less story is more room for piling on additional, confusing gameplay mechanics.” In what has become NIS’s trademark move, they have patched together ideas from at least a dozen other games, resulting in something convoluted, yet intriguing. It’s sort of like buying a car with a lighthouse on the top—you don’t really understand it, but it gives you some options you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Unfortunately, none of these are thoroughly explained unless you buy the strategy guide, and you can’t even look them up on the Internet since the game doesn’t mention them at all, so you wouldn’t know about anything you could. For developers who want people to think their games are fun, tutorials should not require top-level governmental security clearances. Although for reference, even the American government managed to let information about Watergate, Monica Lewinsky and WMDs slip, and none of those existed for the purpose of enhancing an enjoyable experience (Well…maybe Lewinsky). Maybe NIS could give the government a few pointers..

Dis2

…I tried. I can’t come up with anything to say about this that’s funnier than anything anyone said about George Bush’s snack food assassination attempt.

That isn’t to say they’re bad features. In fact, for the most part, they bring a lot to the tactical RPG genre. Take geocrystals, for instance. Regions of tiles on battle maps are sometimes color-coded, and any crystal growing on that color tile imbues every tile of that color with its properties—sort of like “The floor is hot lava,” if certain regions could also be “the floor is bubbling acid,” “the floor is delicious ice cream” or “the floor will increase the chance that your masseuse will give you a happy ending.” This reminded me fairly strongly of the battle judges from Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, except I had the ability to change and manipulate the rules, if I went and stood on the hot lava anyway, I could just take the 20% damage without bringing the game to a halt, and I didn’t hate them more than the dog from Duck Hunt.

Dis3

I know my candidates have to have at least level 500 before I’ll vote for them.

Also, gone are the days of wandering from node to node hoping for a random battle encounter. In Disgaea, players can fight monsters in Item World, a randomly generated dungeon within items. Players can use this to upgrade item stats, collect stat bonuses to move freely from item to item, or simply to grind levels. Because why stop at level 99, when you could stop at level 9999? And why stop there when you could reset your characters to level 1 and do it all over again? I did have fun with Disgaea, but you might be able to guess that it’s a rather time-consuming game. In fact, I’ve put more hours into this than I have Fallout or Skyrim. My game timer is on 140 hours with only a small amount of the extra content touched. That’s almost six straight days—that’s enough to kill two Korean kids back-to-back! I don’t care what you’re doing for six straight days, it’ll get old. Ever go camping for six days straight? Once the moss takes root, you end up looking like Treebeard. For the less active readers, six days of sitting on the couch eating ice cream and…well, it’s not moss, but something will take root. Hell, you can’t have six days of sex. I’ve tried…you start to get sore after about an hour or two.

Dis4

When you need a full gross of characters to pick from. Because that one point of difference in attack will make or break the game.

Every thing in the game is designed for the purpose of raising your stats, which makes it easier to level up, which in turn allows you to raise your stats. It’s a mobius strip of grinding. And having so much variation in level just means you’re as evenly matched with the enemies as a rhinoceros on steroids versus a freshly baked apple turnover. Unfortunately, near the beginning of the game, Etna managed to strike a lucky shot against a supposedly unkillable monster, thus bumping her up about thirty levels (at which point, she rightly could have slain Laharl and spent the rest of the game as the overlord). From that point on, the game simply alternated between tedium of leveling up and the boredom of mowing through enemies. I haven’t even touched on some of the more interesting features of the game, like making proposals to the Netherworld senate, which allows you to bribe the senators—much like the American senate—and to “persuade by force” when they reject your proposals. There’s also a weird infusion of 1950s sci-fi about two-thirds of the way through the story. All of that was fun, but when I realized that I was really just having fun with a colorful GUI for Algebra, I thought I should move on to a new game.

Give it a shot, though, if you’ve got a week.

Getting back into the swing of this comedy thing after a few weeks off. Working on a book review, since those seem to be popular, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to finishing my post on Luigi’s Mansion.

Chrono Cross – Playstation

gfs_50218_1_1I’ve reviewed enough games by now that I’m convinced Shigeru Miyamoto is the only game developer on the planet who actually knows how to make a game, and that all other successful games get it right purely by accident. I envision the industry like a Looney Tunes episode, where developers just blunder through a hazardous landscape of booby traps, stepping in just the right spots to avoid the poisoned arrows, leap over the crocodile pit, and dodge the falling anvil to let it fall on the villain’s comically inept henchman. And then we get Chrono Trigger. But having paid close attention for three years, always looking for something absurd to criticize, I feel like I’ve started to notice every corpse with an anvil for a head and every crocodile picking his teeth with the wire frames of eyeglasses.

chronocross2

Serge fights Not-Nus alongside Not-Schala and Not-Frog

Specifically, I’ve reviewed enough RPGs that I feel I could easily cover them with my own version of a Cosmo quiz to tell me whether my relationship with any game is going to be hot and steamy, or whether I should just break it off early so as not to waste the best years of my life. If I could only match up witty comments with one of those scan-tron bubble sheets for the tests you take in high school to determine whether or not your teachers get paid, I could hammer out reviews three times a week. So this week I’d like to look at Chrono Cross sternly, shake my finger like its mom and say, “You should know better,” by examining things it does that developers need to stop doing.

1. Too many playable characters. (Forty-five? Are you trying to tell a story or start a football team?)

2. Only three characters at a time. (Two, really, since game designers have this notion that a character can live a lifetime as a ninja master or a military tactician, but if they don’t have the spiky-haired teenage protagonist at the head of their party at all times, they won’t have enough wits about them to jam their straws in their juice boxes.)

3. Characters who are as unique and distinct from one another as a box of Cheerios. (and with almost as much flavor)

4. Fewer options in combat than the space invaders. (Drop down, reverse direction, increase speed, versus Chrono Cross’ Attack, use magic)

5. Bland story that drops a piano full of convoluted plot points on your head just before the final boss fight.

6. Lack of explanation of battle system. (Eh…it’s better than Cross Edge)

7. Lack of direction from plot-point to plot point. (The NSA usually has more information to go on when cracking international codes than the player does when advancing the game)

gfs_50218_2_297

More characters than you can shake a gate-key at.

To be fair, a lot of games have worse problems. But I’ve never liked playing games where focus is taken off of plot development in favor of getting enough characters to create a successful pyramid scheme. And with the “mute bastard” trope, where the main character has the personality of your average tree and no character consistent enough to speak for him, of course the story will come off as less coherent than your average Trump voter. Yes, a few of them do have unique and interesting skills, but the majority of them can only do some variation of “deal damage with X-elemental qualities,” but the elements only matter when one of them accidentally heals a monster, and you can equip any type of magic on any character to equal effect. Chrono Cross sells itself on offering a New Game+ to let the player collect all 45 characters. Congratulations, Square, not only did you reduce Chrono Trigger to Pokemon, but you totally missed the point that the reason we gotta catch ‘em all is because they’re all unique monsters!Chrono Cross did have some clever ideas. Rather than try to write a coherent sequel to a time travel story–something that Crimson Echoes did with all the grace of Swan Lake as performed by a herd of wildebeests, and that Back to the Future only pulled off with enough plot holes to make it look like it survived one of the Jigsaw Killer’s puzzles–they focused on the idea of parallel universes and realities that could have existed, but didn’t. And it’s actually kind of brilliant that they managed to incorporate branching paths and player decisions that create mutually exclusive events so that not all things can happen in a single play-through.

Harle

Well someone at Square is a Batman fan…

But here I have to shout out a big apology to Crimson Echoes. While previously I accused the fan-made game of a variation on point #5 from above, I now have to respect them for taking the shreds of plot that sound like Square sewed them together from the scraps of cloth found in boxes in their grandma’s attic and making them sound like they all came from the same, if not convoluted, story. After an entire game’s worth of traveling between two parallel universes, recruiting a party larger than Woodstock, and finding bits of information that hint toward what happened during and after Crono’s battle with Lavos, we find out that the dragon gods are really just out for revenge for Lavos falling on the reptites. And once that crimson star is dropped on you, you go into the final dungeon.

Dragon

You’ll need people with intelligence when taking on this dragon. Fish. Thing.

But for some reason, I got through it. Perhaps that reason might be that although I recently resolved not to waste times with games I don’t enjoy, old habits are hard to break. I did like some aspects of the game. Yasunori Mitsuda’s score, as usual, was a pleasure to listen to, although–much like the rest of the game–it sounded like he just threw in discarded scraps and rough drafts of songs that he ultimately didn’t use in Xenogears. The weapon smithing system seemed interesting, although it petered out halfway through the game. And, of course, the game did score 10/10 by some critics, so perhaps there is something intangible about the game that’s worth my time.

Leah

Not-Ayla joins your party!

But I’m still a little scared to try out Radical Dreamers. Maybe I should just stick to replaying Chrono Trigger until my brain melts.